I had a board game first this summer: I read an entire series of novels in preparation for playing a board game. When Jamey Stegmaier announced he was designing a new game with Alex Schmidt based on the award winning Red Rising series by Pierce Brown, his excitement was so palpable that I wanted to understand the draw of the saga held for him. I checked my local library and the first book was already reserved, with a long waiting list in line before me. So I took the plunge and purchased the whole series from Amazon, hoping it would captivate me as it seemed to have done for Jamey.
Start with a narrative universe politically ordered by a tightly controlled color coded caste system; pull in the concept of a boarding school with quirky teachers (like Hogwarts from Harry Potter) but introduce some structural changes to the school so that only the most socioeconomic elite in the caste system are permitted to attend; have the students compete in fight to the death brutal competitions (evocative of The Hunger Games but more violent and rape-y); explore the dynamic of class struggles and the penchant for revolution the lower castes foment; and you’ve got a good understanding of the Red Rising series that details the life and times of our protagonist, Darrow O’Lykos. To be honest, it’s an intense and difficult read due to the graphic nature of the violence (definitely not a story I want to see acted out on the big screen). But it’s well written literature and it makes you think.
Once I finished the book series, I was emotionally charged and ready to play Red Rising. I unboxed my review copy, invited over a few friends, and sat down for my first game. Jacqui Davis, Miles Bensky, and Justin Wong designed the artwork for the game and I’d describe it overall as futuristic, with a cartoonish bent when it comes to the character cards.
Before we get into the mechanics of the game, the components for Red Rising Collector’s Edition warrant a discussion. I loved the weight of the metal influence cubes and fleet tokens handed out to each player. Likewise, the start player token, sovereign token, central board, and house cards are well constructed. And I appreciated the gold foil on the character cards. However, our first group of players gathered around our game table (and subsequent groups I played with) identified nuisance problems with some of the components. Each player’s set of metal influence cubes is a different color and the yellow and gold sets are difficult to distinguish from across the table. The card holders included exclusively in the Collector’s edition are a disaster.
Every single person I played with managed to accidentally knock over their holder several times during a game, spilling out their hand for all to see repeatedly. Finally, the character cards reveal some questionable graphic design and font choices. For example, it was very difficult for all of us in the middle age cohort to read “obsidian” printed on the black cards. None of these issues are significant enough to downvote the game, but I hope to see them corrected in future print runs.
Onto the mechanics… Red Rising is a mid-weight board game with a primary focus on cards and hand management. At the start of the game, each player is dealt 5 character cards and a house card (which grants a special ability). One of the primary goals is to build a hand of highly valued character cards (tabulated at the end of the game using the interaction formulas printed on the bottom of each card). To build this hand, players will use most of their turns to discard a character card from their hand to the board (called deploying) and then pick up a character card from a different column of the board.
To spice things up, each card has a deploy ability that is triggered when the card is deployed (for example, a card might let you banish another card, move a card from one column to another on the board, immediately choose another card on the board to redeploy, etc). And each time you pick up a character card, you get a bonus immediately that edges you closer to victory along the path of one of the other strategic goals established in the game – either the receipt of helium tokens (worth 3 VPs each), forward movement along the fleet track (increasing VPs for each step forward), the possession of the sovereign token (10VPs if held at end of game), or influence cube placement on the influence area of the board (worth 4/2/1 VPs each, depending on your player’s rank in the influence cube area population). Instead of discarding+picking up on your turn, there’s also an option, called scouting, to simply draw from the deck, place the drawn card on a column on the board, and then gain the bonus for that column. This option might be used when you are completely satisfied with your hand and can’t bear to part with any of it, or when you’re trying to pad the columns with cards of certain colors (some cards give you end game points per card of X color on the board) and crossing your fingers you can draw them. It should be used sparingly since you miss out on the deploy ability when scouting.
I didn’t encounter a lot of analysis paralysis when playing this game, and it plays in under an hour (maybe 90 minutes for your very first time at higher player counts). There’s plenty of replayability in the box given the large assortment of cards, but I do wonder if they’re going to eventually release an expansion for Red Rising to keep things fresh for experienced players with different character card abilities or new point tallying interaction rules.
Jamey and Alex have hit on an accessible and winning combination by supporting a large spectrum of player counts (1-6), providing mid-weight complexity, keeping the gameplay tight enough to finish in under an hour, and selling it for under $60 at launch. And perhaps most importantly for players who worship theme and backstory, playing the game feels incredibly personal after you’ve read the books. I felt connected to the characters as they were revealed from the deck because of my experience reading the series. I was delighted to have the Sevro card in my hand, giddy to be given the House of Mars player role, and I flushed with anger when the Jackal card appeared on the board. I spent a lot of the game explaining the highlights of each character to my friends as new cards were laid down. Pretty sure I had to fight back tears when Eo’s card came up. In one of our games, my friend Malinda played Apollo and probably didn’t understand why I worked so tirelessly to thwart her efforts. Red Rising is a solid OUI! OUI! OUI! from me for those who have read the series (and a OUI! OUI! for those who haven’t). Get the Red Rising book series and read it and then get the game and play it. In that order. And consider pairing the series with the game as a generous present for someone you love who loves board games and great dystopian novels.
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 45 minutes per game
Game type: hand management
Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
OUI OUI OUI: I LOVE THIS GAME. I MUST HAVE THIS GAME.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.